Nfld. & Labrador

It's never been safer for kids to play outside — or more dangerous to be inside

There was once a time when kids flooded neighbourhood streets during the summer with bicycles, road hockey and whatever else their imaginations could muster. 

Children are sedentary for roughly 7.5 hours each day and spend less time playing outdoors

The research shows children are spending less time outside, according to Dr. Mark Tremblay of the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa. (Stu Mills/CBC)

It's increasingly less likely that a neighbourhood will be filled with children who are sent outdoors after breakfast and have to be dragged inside when the sun goes down, one children's researcher said and that's bad news for their health.

Today, the average school-aged child is sedentary for roughly 7.5 hours each day, according to the Canadian Public Health Association. When kids are taking part in physical activities, it's often in a structured environment under the watchful eyes of parents.

"It's a very real thing and temporal trends show very clearly that children aren't playing as much, they're not spending as much time outside and this is manifesting in all kinds of health-related consequences that are increasingly well documented," said Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research with the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa.   

The CPHA isn't alone in raising a flag about inactive schoolchildren, said Tremblay, who added that virtually every health authority around the world says that intervention on this issue is important and that there has never been a safer time than right now for children to be outdoors. 

What the research doesn't make clear, Tremblay said, is whether or not kids who spent more time outdoors are actually being active, or if those who indicated in surveys that they are physically active are doing that activity inside or outside.

Play time for children isn't always easy to measure, he said but it has been identified as a priority, and recognized by the World Health Organization as part of its global action plan to increase physical activity.

Risky play

Unstructured physical activities, or play time that includes a chance of getting hurt, is becoming less frequent as parents have begun to refer to "risky play."

"Risky play is a new term that has been used increasingly in recent years as we bubble wrap our kids," Tremblay said. 

Tremblay said it's important for kids to take risks while playing to help develop decision making and problem solving. (Charlottetown LAB, NL/Facebook)

"The fear of virtually everything, the fear of going outdoors because you might get sunburned, you might get bit by a mosquito, you might fall and so on."

But it's been documented that some degree of risk is important for child development, he said.

Some examples of risky play include anything done at heights, at high speeds, with sharp objects or with the risk of getting lost. But really, Tremblay said, it's all just play, and games like hide-and-seek are just standard games of childhood.

"I prefer to just to refer to things as play and let kids go out and explore their limits," he said.

"That includes possibilities of getting lost, the possibilities of having what we call, 'learning injuries,' seeing how fast you can go, how high you can go."

That kind of play helps children learn their limits, he said. Getting bumps and bruises, or winding up a little bit lost, help kids develop problem solving and decision making skills, along with executive function, Tremblay said.

Indoors is real danger

In fact, being indoors is actually more dangerous for children than being outdoors, Tremblay said.

Smartphones, computers and televisions, while entertaining and an easy way for parents to monitor their children, are doing more harm than good, he said.

These devices open children up to increased risks of cyber-bullying, cyber-abduction, sitting for long periods of time and eating when not hungry, he said — even the indoor air is worse, with a higher risk of catching a communicable disease.  

"This is the misconception that kids are safe by being indoors," Tremblay said. 

"Almost everything from a health perspective is worse indoors."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go

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